Video games are so easy these days. In-game tutorials, health regeneration, frequent checkpoints, enemies who dance around us without attacking... it’s like developers are making interactive entertainment for babies.
Or at least that’s what the folks at From Software, the Japanese studio behind the sadistically difficult new sword-slashing role-playing game Dark Souls, apparently think.
Dubbed a “spiritual successor” to 2009’s brutally challenging Demon’s Souls , Dark Souls' primary selling point is its unrelenting hardness. It provides no instructions, consistently pits players against some of the most deadly enemies ever to be coded into a game, offers little respite in its limited game saves and health recuperation, and deliberately punishes players by erasing most of their progress whenever they die – which, if you haven’t guessed yet, happens a lot.
This isn’t poor game design. It is intended. From Software believes that there is an underserved niche of the hardcore gaming population that is tired of being coddled, and that these people pine for the truly gruelling games of yesteryear, only with modern graphics and play mechanics.
I’m not sure I’m a member of this demographic.
As was the case with Demon’s Souls, I was intrigued by the prospect of playing a game that promised to pummel both my avatar and my spirit. Indeed, the experienced player in me saw the three words – "prepare to die" – repeated in all of game's marketing materials as a challenge to my abilities.
I was completely engaged for the first couple of hours. I crept around Dark Souls’ cramped but free-to-roam world, dreading what might lie around every corner and finding more often than not that I was no match for whatever it was. Eventually I discovered a path populated with enemies that I could handle – if only barely, and just one at a time. And as I slowly worked through these foes and collected their souls – the game’s precious currency, used to both level up and buy items and equipment – I began to feel a kind of exhilaration. It was a mixture of fright, excitement, and satisfaction at my hard-won success.
Then I died.
And lost all of my souls.
And was sent back to my home camp.
And realized that all of the enemies I had defeated had magically respawned.
All of my work had been erased. This is the way of Dark Souls. You will die. Frequently. Of this there is no question. However, you will learn from your deaths. And as you make your way back to the blood stain left by your most recent slaying – you'll recover lost souls if you reach it without dying again – you’ll likely fare a little better, if only because you know what to expect and when to expect it.
But real improvement – by which I mean character growth – is painfully slow, and the benefits of levelling up almost imperceptible. I once arrived back at camp after almost an hour of cautious exploration with enough souls to level up four times. When I headed back out I saw no difference at all in my battle prowess. It was disheartening.
There are some exceptions. I’ve occasionally run across stashes of armour that confer modest but noticeable improvements to my defensive capabilities, as well as a few powerful weapons that would decrease by one or two the number of successful strikes necessary to kill an enemy. These were exciting moments.
And patient grinding will eventually prove fruitful. I killed and re-killed the undead inhabitants of a nearby church for more than an hour in order to level up my dexterity so I could wield a massive sword with exceptional attack strength that I'd stumbled across by chance.
Still, the pace of progress is very slow, and the frustration of losing that progress over and over again can be almost unbearable.
Dark Souls offers other elements worthy of discussion, not the least of which is a clever multiplayer system that allows us to scrawl messages on the floor to alert those playing in parallel dimensions of impending dangers and hidden treasures. We can also venture into our fellow players' worlds to briefly lend aid or even attack them. Unfortunately, while I had the opportunity to read and leave several messages, my pre-release evaluation kept me from encountering many other players.
Some words, too, should be spared for the graphics and narrative, the former of which deserves praise, the latter not so much. For what it's worth – and it will be a lot, to some – Dead Souls actually looks and sounds much like a Western RPG. Unlike most Japanese RPGs, it is intensely gritty, featuring realistic environments, animations, lighting, and sound effects. These elements add to the tension. However, it is wholly lacking the narrative richness for which Western RPGs have become known. Plot, dialogue, and interesting characters are nearly non-existent. If you’re the sort of gamer who craves a driving story to give purpose to a game’s action, best look elsewhere.
In the end, though, your enjoyment – or frustration – will depend almost exclusively on whether you cue to Dark Souls’ unparalleled difficulty, which will likely be used as a benchmark for years to come. I've been trying to conjure up an analogy that would make some sense to mainstream gamers, and the best I can manage is to imagine a rookie playing Halo for the very first time on Bungie's notorious "legendary" difficulty setting.
I can understand the appeal of this sort of experience to hardcore players, and feel safe recommending it to anyone looking for a true test of their gaming skills. The satisfying feeling that comes from defeating any of Dark Souls' enemies for the first time is not easily ignored. If I were another age and enjoyed a greater number of leisure hours I might even become consumed by it. As is, however, taking two steps back for every three steps forward feels like a frustrating waste of my precious gaming time. I think I need to stop playing, and soon, lest I saddle myself with the expense of replacing the TV into which I'm bound to throw my controller.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai